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Wednesday, 1 December 2004
Page: 104


Senator MOORE (4:48 PM) —I also wish to thank Senator Ridgeway for putting this very important issue back on our agenda—and I say `back on the agenda' because these issues have come again to our Parliament House. Once again, the issues of Indigenous disadvantage—and, in particular, the high number of Indigenous people who are caught up in the justice system and, in many cases, the lack of justice system—have been brought to this place based on a personal crisis. This issue probably would not have come back in this way to this chamber if there had not been the horrific incidents on Palm Island in Queensland.

Again we are gathered around to talk about issues and again there is so much agreement. I keep saying that in this place. There is so much agreement on what should and could be done, but this motion is trying to achieve more than words—some genuine action. When the original Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report was brought down—the entire five volumes and 339 recommendations—many people read it because it was a threshold document in Australian history. At the time, there were numerous statements made about what was going to happen in the future and how the crisis of the number of Indigenous people who had been killed in custody brought forward the royal commission. After that, we went into a process which was supposed to include all levels of government—not one level or the other, because increasingly what seems to happen when we have these important and very personal issues before us is that it turns into a `pass the issue' game. Whose responsibility is it? It is the states'; it is the federal government's. It does not belong to any single level; it belongs to all of us. Until that lesson is learnt, these debates will continue. There has already been a great amount of work and so many words on this issue.

In the 1997 conference to which Senator Scullion referred, the National Ministerial Summit on Deaths in Custody—a one-off meeting—there was an expectation of some people that that review would continue and that it would continue to look at the real issues and the people. We have heard the stats. These issues consistently degenerate into an argument about statistics. Numbers are thrown around and what we end up with is a fight. That is not what we want. We want to have some commitment to action. In 1997 the National Ministerial Summit on Deaths in Custody had all the relevant ministers at the Commonwealth, state and territory level—except, at that stage, the Northern Territory. A good thing that has occurred is that, if there are any future actions, the Northern Territory will be there. Ministers made a wonderful statement—we make lots of wonderful statements—and they said they:

(a) agree that the primary issue of concern is the significant over-representation of Indigenous people at all stages of the criminal justice system ...

... ... ...

(c) acknowledge that addressing the underlying issues is fundamental to the achievement of any real, long-term solutions to the issue of Indigenous incarceration and deaths in custody; and

(d) recognize that it will take the combined effort of Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments and Indigenous peoples and the wider community to effectively address Indigenous over-representation.

We all agreed, we all felt good and we all went home—and the problems continued.

The ministers went on and resolved—also something that we can all agree to—to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system in partnership with Indigenous people. They also resolved:

... to `develop strategic plans for the coordination of Commonwealth, State and Territory funding and service delivery for Indigenous programs and services, including working towards the development of multi-lateral agreements between Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments and Indigenous peoples and organizations ...

The statement then referred to all the things that could be brought together in this process. Once again, we all agreed. We have been saying the same things this afternoon about what should happen, about having partnerships and about setting up plans.

But, even in 1997, the then social justice commissioner and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner, who were at the summit because they are Indigenous people, refused to be signatory to that wonderful resolution. People questioned why they would not sign up. The reason they did not sign up in 1997 was that they were `concerned that the summit outcomes unfortunately replicate the vague, generalised approaches of the past, which have been marked by refusal to commit to achieving specific, measurable outcomes within specific time frames'.

In 2004 that sends us a really clear message. What more does Senator Ridgeway's motion want? We have the agreement. We want exactly what the Indigenous people were asking for then. We have the theory, we have the goodwill—they are there. We want some clear action. It is important that leadership is shown, and it is important that the levels of government, particularly at the state and federal level, will accept that it is not some kind of contest. It is more important than scoring political points; it is about people's lives. In this case, as we have all agreed through volumes of statistics, they are people who suffer significant disadvantage. No-one questions that. What we seem to question is how we will address it.

In terms of the roles of the different levels of government, we need to have some understanding that Indigenous people must have a voice in the process. I was pleased to hear Minister Vanstone's response in question time this afternoon. She acknowledged that there have been `decades and decades of disadvantage', and that it is not good enough to `replace one set of representative structure with another'. There is no disagreement with that. We want to know how it will work and what will be done. Standing up in this place quoting stats, talking about how much money went where and how many houses have been built does not address the problem. We know where there has been some advance. But we also see the tragedy that occurs in places like Palm Island. The basic reason for that is that we have not achieved any trust. There is no trust and no hope amongst some of those communities. For me, that is certainly the overwhelming tragedy of Palm Island.

In an area where there has been state, federal and local government involvement, we still have simmering anger and an overwhelming lack of trust. When the tragedy of a loss of life occurred—and no-one can disagree that it was a tragedy—the response was so violent and so overwhelming. It is a good thing that Premier Beattie went to Palm Island, and I am pleased that there is a five-point plan. I am fascinated, though, how that five-point plan will be entrenched in the community—not imposed and no more rules put on people. I hear about the kinds of programs that seemingly are going to engage Indigenous people, by telling them, `No school, no pool.' That is so sad. It is also without any future. Communities have every right to make the decisions. But to have that kind of simplistic program imposed on top does not address the key issue. We need to put these great words into practice. The way to do that is certainly not by talking at Indigenous people. We need to have the voices of Indigenous people heard. We always seem to trip up over that bit.

With this process, there needs to be some genuine action, some cross-government cooperation and also, as Senator Ridgeway has asked for, some regular review. We do not want glossy little leaflets talking about who has visited where and what photographic opportunity has occurred. We need to have some understanding of what real change has been planned and have that measured. It may come down to some communities wanting a process that links their welfare payments or their entitlements. It is not largesse; it is an entitlement as a citizen of this country to a payment that any of us could get if we were in the same circumstances. If there is a decision that is agreed at the local level to implement some of those programs, so be it. But to have some centralised group determine that one set of rules will apply to one group of the community—one group that we have already agreed at every level suffers from extreme disadvantage—just continues the pain and the tragedy. If there is going to be a positive outcome out of the tragedy of Palm Island, let it be that we can achieve some genuine change. Let us not have more pages of high-sounding rhetoric. Let us see what genuine changes can be made and maybe then the five-point plan can have a five-point result.